GHENT, N.Y. — The challenge seemed simple enough: Take the motley crew of beets I managed to extract from my garden this summer and turn them into borscht, the hearty Ukrainian beet soup. So, I went online looking for a borscht recipe.
As the testimony of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen put on vivid display this week, social networking sites can be employed for good and evil. I’m not trying to suggest that the innumerable suggestions that pop up when you type “borscht” and “recipe” in the search bar of your phone or computer is a playground for the devil’s hands — as far as I know, there’s no lethal dose of dill — only that I’ve been impressed over the years by how hard and frustrating something as ostensibly simple as finding an online recipe for beet soup can be.
Rarely these days can you retrieve instructions — not just for borscht, but for something as straightforward as a cheeseburger, not that I’ve ever lacked confidence in my cheeseburger-fashioning and grilling skills and felt the need to consult a recipe — without first having to read about the history of the dish, the family background of the chef whose ancestry or lived experience qualifies him or her to offer their novel takes and tweaks, and absent any certifying provenance their acknowledgements and apologies for appropriating another culture’s culinary treats.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first obstacles the home cook must typically surmount are technological. Let me give you an example without naming any names, because my impression is that while there may be good money in becoming a culinary influencer, typically, these aren’t people trying to take over the world.
And remember, all I was looking for was a borscht recipe. As in, “Peel and boil the beets, then add chicken stock, salt and pepper.”
The first recipe that appeared on my internet browser wasn’t a recipe at all. It was a video of the chef, who had an encouragingly Eastern European name, making borscht. I appreciate that videos have their virtues — a picture is worth a thousand words, etc. — but as mouthwatering as a video of melting butter or sizzling, caramelizing onions can be, isn’t it slightly beside the point? Basically a waste of time because after you’re done watching, you’ll still need to consult the recipe with all the correct steps and measurements in black and white.
But, even prior to the video, I had to dispense with a pop-up screen asking for my name and email address so I could receive the chef’s “Five secrets to being a better cook.” I have no problem with self-improvement in general, but, really, all I was looking for was a simple borscht recipe.
I declined the opportunity to watch the tape, at least I attempted to, by scrolling past it. But, the chef, or at least her webmaster, thought I was badly in need of education because it now appeared reduced in the lower right of my screen, over an Amtrak ad and above a search result-generated offer for some mesh screens I was flirting with buying for our front door over the summer before thinking better of it.
I believed I was finally getting somewhere when I alighted upon the heading “Ingredients for Classic Ukrainian Borscht.” But, I was still no closer to the truth. I had to read through a tutorial on how to peel and cut beets and how to remove beet stains. All noble concepts, but ones rooted in common sense. By the way, I’ve found that Mr. Clean Magic Eraser sponges eliminate even the most recalcitrant stains, food and otherwise.
After sidestepping a few more ads and another pitch to watch the chef in action, I finally found my way to the recipe. But, by that point, I was so frustrated that I decided to seek out a different website. I enjoy The New York Times’ recipe ideas; I also appreciate the reader comments.
They aren’t shy about sharing their own adventures making the dish, though my experience is that the typical Times recipe requires twice as many ingredients and arcane pieces of equipment as the average recipe. My friend Aris likes to joke that the first step in a typical Times recipe is something like “Place the duck in the duck press,” assuming everybody has a duck press sitting on their kitchen counter next to their toaster.
The Times borscht recipe called for 17 ingredients, not including those required to make the horseradish cream. Horseradish cream? By now approaching a state of clinical depression, my wife suggested I Google an Ina Garten borscht recipe. My understanding is that the chef who first made her name as the owner of the Barefoot Contessa food store in the Hamptons has a gift for simplification. Her borscht recipe called for a mere 12 ingredients, including sour cream. Unfortunately, the recipe was for cold summer borscht, and I was looking for beefy winter borscht.
But, then, I had a brainstorm. Our home is equipped with dozens of cookbooks. As 20th century as it sounds, I’ve got a hunch that one of them must have a borscht recipe that doesn’t require an internet connection, a long walk through the chef’s family history, or the rise in blood pressure associated with having to stew, no pun intended, while the ad you didn’t request in the first place takes its sweet time loading before letting you anywhere near the recipe.